Big, old B.C. trees produce mutations over time that could improve success: UBC

Prof. Sally Aitken, associate dean in the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C.

Researchers collected DNA from the tops of some of Canada’s tallest trees to search for mutations that could provide evidence of how the ancient forest giants evolve to survive.

It involved ascending 20 Sitka spruce trees on Vancouver Island, averaging 80 metres tall and ranging in age from 220 years to 500 years old, to reveal that the old-growth trees developed mutations to their genetic code as they grow and age.

Prof. Sally Aitken, associate dean in the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C., said they wanted to know whether mutations that occur during growth, as opposed to those during reproduction, could add up to substantial changes for the trees.

“To do that we went to some of the tallest trees in B.C.,” she said of their research in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

READ MORE: Scientists uncover new DNA details about ancient trees on Vancouver Island

“We sampled the bottom of the trees and the tops of the trees and looked for places where the DNA code was different between the bottom and the top.”

The results of the research appeared in the June edition of Evolution Letters, an open access, peer reviewed journal that publishes new research in evolutionary biology.

Aitken said three professional tree climbers were hired to scale the spruce trees, while the researchers stayed on the ground collecting and analyzing the samples.

She said the towering trees appear largely unchanged over hundreds of years of growth, but peel back bark and examine needles and the complexity begins to reveal itself.

Trees have long lifespans and their evolution can’t be studied as quickly as animals, but tracking what’s called somatic mutation rates can offer evidence of their ability to thrive and survive, she said.

“They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years,” Aitken said. “They’re very successful ecologically and evolutionarily.”

The research is the first evidence of the large amount of genetic variation that can accumulate in the trees over centuries, she said.

Scientists have long known about mutation growth over time, but little about its frequency and contribution to genetic variation, Aitken added.

“One big, old tree could have 100,000 mutations or in that order of magnitude across the whole tree.”

Aitken said it doesn’t mean the trees could immediately adapt to different conditions, but it is a mechanism for them to produce genetic diversity over time.

Their research may provide insights into what part the mutations could play in how trees often adapt to local climates or develop responses to bugs and pests, she said.

“They are very successful and this is one of the ways that may have contributed to their long-term success over eons,” Aitken said. ”What we can see here is that within an individual tree, a very large, old tree, we see diversity being generated that can then potentially contribute to evolution.”

Aitken said wood is a necessary product and used worldwide, but the old-growth forests deserve more protection.

“I think we should be conserving a lot of old growth, and not because of the genetic diversity in these trees per se, but because of the very important functions that these trees serve,” she said.

“The ecological functions. The carbon sequestration. The habitat they produce, and they’re wonderful places.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Crasa explodes to help Caps take three points

Cowichan falls in shootout at home, beats Kings in Powell River

Brothers in Cowichan Valley win big in lottery for 2nd time

Playimng same numbers net big wins over a three year period

Two Cowichan Tribes families devastated by duplex fire

Carla Sylvester sat in her vehicle, on Tuesday morning, with tears in… Continue reading

Enjoy an evening of fun on the Cowichan stage with ‘Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike’

A talented cast, and an entertaining play: sounds like a winner to us

What is the future of Shawnigan Lake?

‘Think Shawnigan’ project wants your ideas

VIDEO: #MeToo leader launches new hashtag to mobilize U.S. voters

Tarana Burke hopes to prompt moderators to ask about sexual violence at next debate

B.C. massage therapist reprimanded, fined for exposing patients’ breasts

Registered massage therapist admits professional misconduct

B.C. boosts legal aid funding in new payment contract

‘Duty counsel’ service restored in some communities, David Eby says

Rugby Canada helps recovery efforts in Japan after typhoon cancels final match

Canadian players wanted to “give back in whatever small way they could”

VIDEO: Bear spies on cyclists riding by on Campbell River street

Riders seem unaware the bruin is mere feet away on the side of the road

Cheating husband sues mistress for gifted ring after wife learns about affair

The husband gave his mistress $1,000 to buy herself a ring in December 2017

British couple vacationing in Vancouver detained in US after ‘accidentally’ crossing border

Parents travelling with three-month-old reportedly being held in Pennsylvania

After losing two baby boys, B.C. parents hope to cut through the taboo of infant death

Oct. 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day in B.C.

Alberta to join B.C.’s class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors

B.C. government claims opioids were falsely marketed as less addictive than other pain meds

Most Read